Cinematic Story Teller
Stephanie Castillo, documentary filmmaker, is home on Kaua’i again with her cameras, a ton of ideas and an Emmy award
Thirty years, nine documentaries and an Emmy award later, Stephanie Castillo, an independent video and television producer, researcher, writer and director, has moved her work base away from Oahu and back home to Kaua’i.
Castillo will celebrate Filipino American Heritage Month with a screening of two of her documentaries Friday, Oct. 22, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Kaua’i Museum courtyard. Both aired previously on PBS Hawaii and both were produced as her contribution to the Filipino Centennial Celebration in 2006.
Remember the Boys
The first documentary she’ll show is Remember the Boys, a 30-minute World War II story focusing on 300 teenagers from Hawaii who helped Gen. Douglas MacArthur retake the Philippines from Japanese occupiers. This screening also is tied to the anniversary of MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in October 1944. Castillo says the film “poignantly captures the inspiring true story of a chaplain to his war buddies.”
The chaplain is Domingo Los Banos, who grew up on a pineapple plantation in Kalaheo and after WWII became an educator. He’s the storyteller in the film, and he’ll be present at this screening.
“Now in his 80s, Domingo is among the last remaining Hawaii teenage boys from the U.S. Army’s 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment who went to war together,” says Castillo. “Later, as grown men, ‘the boys’ asked if he would be head of their VFW unit, but he didn’t want to do that and instead volunteered to be their chaplain.”
He remains so to this day. “As chaplain to the unit, he does their funerals, comforts wives when their husbands pass away, speaks at their funeral services and burials, and visits them when they are hospitalized,” says Castillo. “In this film, he talks about why he does this – it’s a really touching story of one man who chooses to become the shepherd of the boys he went to war with at age 18. The word shepherd is really true for him.”
Another of the films Castillo produced for the Filipino Centennial Celebration in 2006 is the second documentary she’ll screen at the museum, titled Strange Land, My Mother’s War Bride Story.
“My mother, Norma Vega Castillo, came to America as a World War II war bride from the Philippines,” says Castillo. “Kaua’i boy Lt. Wallace Castillo of Kapa’a, serving under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation of Manila, met and married Mom in the Philippines, and then brought her home to his Filipino family here.
“I wanted to feature my mom because she’s one of 500,000 war brides who came to America, and Kaua’i’s first – no one’s ever really focused on their story. I actually wanted to do it in a very focused way, to talk about my mom’s experience as a war bride, but in a way to also pay tribute to all the war brides who married American soldiers and started families all over America after WWII.”
Castillo says the film gets a similar response every time she shows it.
“Immigrants from wherever – everybody who’s come to America – it hits home when they think about how their parents or they themselves came to America. There’s a lot of universal identification with that story of coming to America.
“People come up to me and say that’s how I came, or how my parents came – I hear it again and again, as they say it with tears in their eyes.”
Another response Castillo gets is that, after seeing the film, people say they should write their parents’ or grandparents’ stories.
“I like that,” says Castillo. “It’s a call to action – if families don’t write their stories down, they’re going to be forgotten. I have done that for my family and their kids, who love it, who love to see how their Nana came to live here and the sacrifice she made.
“Now my story is told. Story is important and I want to inspire and encourage others to tell their family stories in some form and not to let those things be lost.”
Doing her art
“Since I was in my 20s, I had always loved the art of film, studying film as art, and from that grew the desire to make films,” says Castillo, formerly a reporter and Maui bureau chief for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin who also did a few stints at USA Today.
By the late 1980s, she was able to transition to her dream of making documentaries.
“I made my way doing my art, which was doing my films, funding them from grants, corporate donations, and support from my family and friends,” says Castillo. “All in all, I worked or collaborated on nine documentaries since 1988, when I started.”
Her first film was Simple Courage, the story of Hawaii’s leprosy epidemic and St. Damien’s intervention.
“It took me five years and $500,000, and it went to PBS National and won an Emmy,” says Castillo, who since then has produced or collaborated on many more projects described on her website olenamedia.com.
Along the way, Castillo returned to college at age 50 to earn an MBA. She says, “I saw all around me artists, including myself, who could not deal with the business world, and I wanted to find out how to raise money. I’ve now added a business background to my artist’s background.”
The MBA has paid off. In 2000, she purchased a Sony Prosumer camera and learned to edit her own work.
“On Domingo’s film and Mom’s film, I did everything – I shot, edited and made them both for $5,000 each. Considering I was making $500,000 films and now can make films for $5,000 or less, that’s pretty significant to me. I learned from MBA school how to work smarter.”
Born in Honolulu, one of seven children, all girls, Castillo bounced around as a military dependent.
Grade school included stints in Japan, Texas, Baltimore and at St. Catherine’s in Kapaa for third and fourth grade when her father went off to the Korean War.
She graduated from the American School in the Philippines, where she attended all four years of high school.
“During high school, I was involved with producing band concerts, being a radio deejay, writing for a magazine and producing a television show pilot,” she says. “My interest has stayed in media and has followed me all my life.”
During college, when she studied journalism at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she did a couple of summer internships at The Garden Island under editor Jean Holmes, plus a paid position that gave her on-the-job experience as a reporter.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, English and film, and years later returned to earn her MBA.
And now, Castillo has come home to roost. Work in Honolulu has dried up, but as a writer and producer she can work all over the planet from any home base. So why not from Kaua’i, in the bosom of her family who welcomed her with open arms?
“I am so grateful to my family for their kindness to me,” says Castillo. “I realize that, like so many people out there, I am having to regroup because of the economy – I don’t take that lightly, but I am very fortunate to have family to fall back on.”
All in the family: Norma Vegas Castillo (center) with four of her seven daughters (from left) Leslie Scales of Lawai, Stephanie, Joanne Brun of Koloa and Patty Furtado of Wailua Homesteads
Photos courtesy Stephanie Castillo
Domingo Los Banos
Good and bad economic times come and go, but family is forever.
“It’s good to be back on Kaua’i,” says Castillo. “It is where my father grew up, in Kapahi; where my grandfather, a professional cockfighter, lived (the motivation for an eight-hour documentary she produced).
“This is my home island and I love this island, and I love that I can be here again. The artist lives and she is still creating – film is still in my soul.”
Being a documentary filmmaker, an uncertain living at best requires some kind of faith.
Says Castillo, “I do pray and I do believe these films are a gift of God to me, and they have threads that run through them that I can see now, looking back at the
nine films. They are about human dignity, about tolerance, about the strength of the human spirit.”
For information, call Castillo at 383-7393 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.